Nike Wary of PR Activity After Free Speech Ruling

09 July 2003

Nike may curb its public relations activities until a legal row over the constitutional classification of its press releases is resolved.

Last month, the US Supreme Court refused to rule on whether a Nike PR campaign represented ‘free speech’ (which is protected under the First Amendment) or ‘commercial speech’ (which is not) [WAMN: 30-Jun-03].

Such legal wrangling goes back to allegations in the 1990s that Nike used third-world sweatshop labour. At the time, the company launched a massive public-relations campaign to protest its innocence.

This campaign was condemned as ‘false advertising’ by human rights activist Mark Kasky, who filed a lawsuit to this effect in 1998. Nike’s subsequent attempts to have the case dismissed – on the grounds that its statements were part of a political debate and were therefore ‘free speech’– were foiled by the Supreme Court’s (in)decision, allowing the lawsuit to proceed.

Now Nike’s director of global issues management, Vada Manager, has revealed that the group has been limiting its PR activity for over a year as a result of the case and may take further steps to do so.

In recent months, he said, Nike has turned down participation in “key social-responsibility benchmarks such as the Dow Jones sustainability index.”

And now the Kasky suit will go ahead, extra precautions may be needed. “We may even become a little stricter because we are now potentially facing a direct trial,” he continued. “We are trying to determine what additional steps we have to take in order to reduce our litigation risk, but at the same time have meaningful engagement with [the public].”

Such reticence, Manager laments, will hit the customer as well as the company: “The public and consumers will be deprived of full transparency and useful information about the companies they do business with.”

Data sourced from: BrandRepublic (UK); additional content by WARC staff